A group of young people banded together more than a decade ago to overcome public opinion, personal doubt and bureaucracy and build a safe space where Baltimore's youths could thrive and be recognized as productive members of the community.
But the Youth Dreamers recently realized they couldn't overcome their biggest hurdle: reality.
The Dreamers started as a small, elective middle-school class and became one of the most successful youth-run organizations in the city, drawing national attention. Now they no longer have a home.
Amid a funding slump, the organization has been forced to rent out the home it built. The place not only provided space for meetings and programs for hundreds of youngsters but also represented what they set out to prove 12 years ago — that a group of students could congregate for positive change in Baltimore.
"It's hard to see the walls so empty, the house so quiet," Deja Joseph, a Dreamers board member, said on a recent visit, as she sat in the house's "Inspiration Room," whose bright green walls have been stripped of posters full of goals and to-do lists. "It was everything we were. Now it's everything we're not."
The Victorian painted in pastels still stands out when you turn onto Carswell Street, a street lined with traditional rowhouses in the Coldstream Homestead Montebello neighborhood.
But missing are the students who came to the house to take part in homework clubs, tutoring, mentoring, advocacy projects and fundraisers.
The Youth Dreamers started with nine students out of their classroom at the Stadium School, eventually moving to the house and serving more than 600 youths.
The Dreamers designed, gutted, painted and decorated the youth center over six years, and some of the permanent fixtures and hand-painted murals remain.
"It's hard to give up something you worked so hard for, because we did this," said Joseph, a junior at City College who joined the Youth Dreamers in fifth grade. "But us losing the house isn't us losing the organization. The Youth Dreamers are still here. And we are not done."
Five students and six adults still sit on the board of Youth Dreamers, and will continue to meet at the house once a month.
They rented the house, called the "Dream House," to the Baltimore Teacher Network for at least 18 months. They plan to use the rent money to establish a college scholarship program.
The group began to experience funding problems about two years ago, said Kristina Berdan, executive director of the Youth Dreamers. The recession prompted foundations and other benefactors to be more selective, and many chose initiatives that could produce results such as improved test score data.
While the Dreamers had raised more than $1 million through grants, donations and fundraisers since it started in 2001, the group couldn't afford to keep operating out of the house. It cost about $200,000 a year to run the nonprofit organization.
Adding to the financial woes, the Dreamers' partnership with the Stadium School had come to an end. The school's test scores had declined, and it chose to eliminate courses that weren't part of its core curriculum, like the projects class that gave the Youth Dreamers its start. The school helped the Dreamers in ways such as paying Berdan's salary.
Berdan, who taught in the city for 13 years, challenged the students in her projects class to come up with a tangible solution to the violence that had been plaguing the city.
They decided to build a place where youths could take refuge after school, and make it fun and useful enough that they would choose to go there instead of the streets.
So the Dreamers bought a boarded-up home for $12,500 and rehabbed it with nearly $325,000 they raised through letter-writing campaigns, fundraisers and a $70,000 grant secured by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.
The group successfully fought zoning laws and opposition from homeowners whofeared the house would attract unruly crowds.
But after the house opened, the Dreamers were honored with a City Council resolution and won over the neighbors, who eventually began bringing sodas to their block parties, mowed the lawn when they weren't there, and played in the horseshoe pit on the Dream House lawn.